Tracking: Pros and Cons
What are the pros and cons of tracking? That's a question that I am frequently asked as I work with school leaders around the country. Instead of answering the question, I ask them a question in return. What do you mean by tracking? Instead of an immediate reply, I invariably get a confused look?
What is tracking?
There are several different forms of grouping, also known as tracking or leveling:
- "Within-class ability grouping" is typically found in elementary schools and not in high schools. One example might be multi-level reading groups.
- "Between-class grouping" - Students spend most of the day in “high,” “middle,” or “low” classes and use the same or similar curricula supported by the same set of standards. Schools often refer to these between-class groupings as "advanced" and "standard" courses.
- "Formal Tracks or Levels" - Students spend most of the day in ability tracks and use curricula substantially adjusted to their ability levels which are often supported by a differing set of standards and expectations.
Many schools and school systems have already or are actively eliminating the third form of grouping students, a system of "formal tracks or levels," because research has shown that this form of grouping actually harms poor, disadvantaged, under-resourced, and struggling learners.
The second method of grouping students--"between class grouping" has been shown to benefit high-achievers but does not have a negative impact on the performance of low-achievers.
My Take On Grouping
I favor an approach that provides two groupings--standard and advanced. Within those two general groupings, schools should provide tiered interventions, which provide additional learning time and support to ensure student mastery of course content. For example, students enrolled in an "advanced" AP course may need additional learning time in the form of after-school tutoring or additional review sessions (tier 2) in order to master course content. Likewise, students in standard English 9 may need additional after-school tutoring or review (tier 2), while some students may need a reading course (tier 3) in addition to their English class.
Students should be able to self-select into standard or advanced courses. In other words, enrollment in advanced or standard courses should be open to all students based on their identified strengths and weaknesses as well as their interests and motivation. For example, a student could be enrolled in and AP English class, but in a standard Algebra II course.
Courses that fall under the "advanced" label could include courses specifically labeled on a local level as "advanced." These advanced courses might include Advanced Algebra I, pre-IB, pre-AP, or Honors. The "gold standard" of advanced courses is the externally moderated courses such as ACT Quality Core, University of Cambridge International Examinations, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate.
Locally labeled advanced courses should never be offered in competition with externally moderated courses. For example, a high school should never offer an Honors Senior English in competition with AP or IB English.
Why not offer locally labeled honors courses in competition with externally moderated advanced courses?
First, most locally labeled advanced courses are not monitored. They are honors in name only. In some cases, these so-called honors courses are merely a way to segregate students because their parents don't want them in classrooms with "those kids." The teacher generally decides the curricula in these locally labeled advanced courses, and there is little or no consistency from classroom to classroom, from teacher to teacher, or from school to school. Unless there is a defined curriculum, accompanied by common formative and summative assessments, there is no way to ensure that honors courses are any more rigorous than standard courses.
Second, advanced courses are offered for advanced, college-bound students. Some parents may complain that externally moderated, AP or IB, courses are too difficult for their child. Allowing students to choose the less rigorous honors course instead of an AP or IB course deludes parents into believing that we are preparing their child for college when we know that all we are doing is placating them and their child. If a student is college-bound, why wouldn't that student be enrolled in the externally moderated course.
Third, generally speaking most AP and IB courses proceed at half the speed of a college course. What takes a year of high school to complete would be undertaken in one semester in college. True, some colleges award more than one 3-hour credit for some AP science courses. Likewise, universities frequently require additional lab time in science courses and they provide additional credit hours for successful completion of that science course and lab. Here is the essential question. If students cannot succeed in a half-speed course in high school, how will they handle a full-speed course only a few months later in college?
The Bottom Line
- Schools need to "push" students to take a rigorous course of study that prepares them to be college and career-ready.
- Labeling courses as advanced to placate parents is tantamount to malpractice.
- Offering honors courses as an alternative to AP or IB courses at the junior and senior level is a big lie. In no way are honors courses preparing students to do college-level work. The only way that I would agree to such a proposal is that these courses were externally moderated. They would have a standard course description and syllabus with accompanying district-wide common and formative assessments, which would make the whole idea very expensive.
- If we really have the best interests of our students in mind, we would ensure that they were adequately prepared to succeed in the most rigorous course that we could offer them.
- Finally, the Common Core State Standards and the accompanying assessments renders "formal tracks or levels," all but obsolete. The adoption of the Common Core State Standards means just that. We now have one common set of standards, which prepare all students to be college and career-ready, and which all students are expected to meet before leaving high school.